Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Old Afton Village
by Phil James
Hoppin’ might be one word to describe the village of Afton, Virginia, a century ago.
Claudius Crozet didn’t originate the phrase, “If you build it, they will come,” but that adage was proven over and again wherever railroading designated a regular stopping point for its trains. A year after the first steam train passed through the Blue Ridge Tunnel in 1858, the village of Afton opened for business with the appointments of a depot and post office.
In earlier years, the hardy travelers who had navigated the winding trail traversing the steep, northernmost tip of Nelson County below Rockfish Gap would have made little note of the future site of Afton. Then-Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia General Assembly surely didn’t pause there for cookies when they fled westward in 1781 to avoid capture by Tarleton’s British Dragoons. Neither was there yet anything to draw attention to the place when Jefferson and Madison passed through on horseback 37 years later to meet with other dignitaries at the Rockfish Gap Tavern to decide the location of Central College, today’s University of Virginia.
Civil engineer Crozet surely noted, though, in 1838, where his survey line crossed the Staunton and Scottsville Turnpike as he planned for a potential rail passage westward through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Just over ten years later, the work commenced, and the future site of the village of Afton became a staging area for materials for his ambitious project. Clusters of laborers’ shanties offered the first hint of the bustling village to come
The lyrical words of the Scottish Bard Robert Burns in his poem Sweet Afton inspired the naming of several towns in America:
How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighboring hills,
Far mark’d with the courses of clear winding rills…
How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where, wild in the woodlands, the primroses blow;
That idyllic scene, well-describing this village in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, was marred throughout the Civil War years when both Confederate and Union forces overwhelmed the mountain community, leaving its little depot in ashes and steel rails brutally bent.
Soon following this destruction, however, life settled into its new normal. In 1867, a merchant named Pugh at Afton Depot put out the following notice: “I shall constantly keep on hand or furnish on Short Notice fine groceries and Plaster which I will sell cheap for Cash or exchange for Produce such as Corn, wheat, Rye Oats & Bacon at Richmond prices, expenses deducted. I also keep on hand the Celebrated Livingston Plow and Castings of all the different numbers.”
In 1869, Afton moved from being only a shipping and receiving point to becoming a travel destination. Afton House, an imposing four-story summer resort, was established and presided over by James Goodloe for more than 50 years. Sited with a grand view of the celebrated Rockfish Valley, its welcome breezes and gracious accommodations were especially popular among those from Richmond and the Tidewater lowlands. Guests arriving on the C&O trains had only a short stroll from the railroad depot to where they could relax on its broad porches and wait for the call to the dining room.
England’s Queen Victoria had kindled a local industry soon after her coronation in 1838, with her penchant for the Albemarle Pippin. The Queen’s apple was especially suitable for growth along the mountainous slopes in the region. With the coming of the railroad, more fruit producers sprang up to take advantage of the convenient shipping. The seasonal bonanza proved a boon to Afton’s bottom line, providing even more opportunities for employment.
By the turn of the 20th-century the village of Afton was self-supporting and getting along just fine, thank you. Local residents were working as coopers providing barrels to orchardists, support staff at the hotel, several general merchants, blacksmiths and those performing repair work, all in addition to orchard and farm work, and a variety of railroad jobs.
Afton’s horizon continued to shine brightly for many decades. Two distinctive mountaintop mansions were built nearby. All of the automobile and truck traffic traveling across the mountain continued to pass through the village for the next 40+ years, and service stations and garages were established to accommodate the traveling public’s needs.
Beginning in 1976, the squealing of bicycles’ braking because of the enticing aroma of fresh-baked cookies wafting from the home next door to Haven’s Garage would replace the once-welcomed sounds of commerce that formerly had arrived multiple times a day at the nearby train station. E. S. Stratton’s Antique Shop next door to the Post Office would parcel out the few remaining remnants of the former mountain resort town’s storied past before it, too, faded into history.
Sweet Afton holds dear its sweet memories of the hustle and bustle of another time and the sojourners who added so much life to its days.
Old Mr. Jefferson and his companions never knew the commotion they had missed.
Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County, Virginia. You may respond to him through his website www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003-2010 Phil James